The sound of the rifle echoed metallically through the beautiful high desert sunrise. My dog Schweppse lay on the ground, blood pouring from his lifeless body, his muscles twitching as I held a beggars hope he may at some point get up and run to me. My father stood there, motionless at first, then turned toward me with fire and savage hate shining in his black eyes. Nothing and everything was said in those silent moments. Finally he spoke, my beloved dad, the man who I would have sold my soul just watch him wash his hands or be his constant shadow doing ranch work. He said four words that stole the air from my lungs and sunk my heart like a lead balloon into my stomach, “this is your fault”. I already knew it before he said a single word and agreed silently, feeling intense shame, knowing I didn’t deserve to live either.
I should have known better, to train my dog not to kill. Now, the smell of gun powder lingered as he stood in front of me, my eyes cleared and I looked at him with unconditional love. He noticed. He saw me, he saw what he had done, the reflection in my eyes was pure. Here I am, standing next to him, his adopted 6 year old girl, unflinching, no longer afraid, the power behind my eyes must have been unnerving. His black eyes now blank, anger dissolving away to absolute indifference. This was the point of no return. We were done. The moment he took his love and never returned it.
This changed the fabric of my life. From that moment on and until his final breath, my father withdrew his love. At first I desperately tried to get him to love me again, or at least to see me. As the years wore on and I understood this would never happen, I made absolutely certain I would make him hate me with every cell in his body. This, at least, I accomplished.
Less than an hour earlier life was as it should be, my dad adored me, we were thick as thieves. I was his right hand ranch hand, always waking before 4:30 am to make certain I was up and outside doing chores before him, seeing the pride and love in his eyes was my greatest joy. I had begged him to get the dog someone had dumped on a road notorious for ranchers leaving cats and dogs they no longer had a use for. It was so well used the county finally put up a “No Dumping” sign with a cartoon image of a cat and dog. My dad finally agreed, no longer able to withstand my constant pleading. I could keep him, unlike the rest that were tied in a burlap sack and thrown into the ditch to drown. His one condition, which I agreed to without hesitation, was to train him. My version of training went a little something like this: naming him Schepsche, playing with him, running through the alfalfa fields and trying to get him to chase the dead sagebrush branches I would find on our 160 ranch. I loved my dog, the responsibility, the limitless future I saw we had together.
When I woke that morning I already knew something was wrong. I felt ice running through my veins, something like terror. I ran outside to to see our entire flock of maybe 8 or 10 sheep laying dismembered in their bared wire pen, blood everywhere, hides torn off in disregard from their lifeless bodies. My beloved dog lay by the side of my favorite lamb licking blood and grizzle from her carcass. One sheep lay there, still barely breathing, blood bubbling from her nose. Without thought I put my hand over her muzzle and stopped the suffering. Somehow, in my 6 year old brain, I thought I could fix this.
I took the shame of what I had done and the mistake I had made and turned it into a fine tuned expression of self hatred. As a child it manifested simply enough. If I made a mistake and was yelled at or given a “this is for your own good” beating, I would break my favorite treasure, making sure I punished myself more. Every year for my birthday, my dad would give me a small porcelain doll with a January sash on it. I adored these, the dolls represented luxury, a finery from far away land, with perhaps mystical powers. The girls characterized in porcelain, were to my country girl eyes, beyond beautiful. Their hair coiffed elegantly, earrings!!, and delicate hands. Nothing that resembled my rough calloused ranch hands, full of scars and cuts from bucking alfalfa bales, repairing bared wire fences, rough housing with my wild brothers, or roaming the wilds of the Nevada desert. I have no idea what horrible mistakes caused such anger in my father and shame in me, but whatever it was was enough to take my favorite of the porcelain dolls and throw it against my wood paneled wall, smashing into a million pieces. In that moment the punishment fit the crime and I felt a brief reprieve from my atrocities. By this time, I knew without a shadow of a doubt that God had made mistake, that I wasn’t supposed to be here. A few years later at the age of 11, my mom told me I was adopted, it made immediate sense. Of course someone didn’t want me, who would? I spent the next 20 years trying to justify my existence. That went really well.
With every traumatic event we experience in childhood we can’t reconcile or comprehend, we push it somewhere deep in our psyche until as adults we are safe enough to revisit and make some kind of sense of it. For me it wasn’t because I wanted to find forgiveness or be a better person. It was because the side effects of the event were taking a toll on my life and I couldn’t continue living the same way. I didn’t have a choice.
It took a long time to realized the impact of that moment on my life. Without going through a laundry list of they ways I expressed my self hatred, the one that caused the most pain was in my relationships. I unconsciously expected love to be taken from me and would always take a preemptive strike and flee before they would leave. I had a long list of men I called future ex boyfriends by the time I was 26. The only relationships that would last longer than a few weeks were the ones with men that hated me. The indifference I would observe in their eyes was the crack for my pipe. I found them irresistible. Looking back, I see I was desperately trying to get them to see me, to love me. I couldn’t love myself so I became a hungry ghost, trying to heal my heart with external sources. The only medicine was self love, and that took another 30 years to at least acknowledge. I couldn’t help who I was attracted to, but I can see now they were all a higher version of myself trying to get me to look at what needed to be healed. Fast forward to the age of 46 and I the volcano, finally met my hurricane. That story is for another time. This story however ends with my dad’s final breath, and the words he spoke.
He had been in the throws of dying for a long time. Months. He had battled Parkinson’s disease for over 15 years and the last few he became a shadow. His body continued to deteriorate and his speech became inaudible, until finally my mom could no longer care for him. He went to a nursing home to live his final days. In the last weeks, his body began to shut down and he started what we nurses and doctors sometimes call the death rattle. A rhythmic breathing that is an unmistakable sound of the impending end, usually 1 or 2 days at the most. My dad lasted almost 7 days, no water or nutrition during that time as not to impede his bodies natural closing. His last words were loud and clear. He hadn’t spoken a clear sentence in years, but despite this he sat up and said these words crystal clear “Why do the kid’s hate me? Is it because I shot their dog?” Moments later he was gone.
This is it, the lesson. Forgive yourself. Forgive others. Don’t hold onto your shame. You can let it go now, or wait 40 years like my dad, the moment he had to in order to cross over into the spirit world. And for me, allow the story to release me so I can become the storyteller, no longer the story. Love yourself deeply. There is no other way.